Donnie gets the lowdown from America’s finest Progressive Rockers during the band European Tour.
There are many things that can frustrate talented musicians with more than 20 years on the music clock. The decline in album sales, the death of the single, even the European refugee crisis, more of which later. However it is something more immediate that is occupying Spock’s Beard co-founder Alan Morse and that’s a lack of toilet roll. Not for himself but for a comrade in need.
Welcome to Nottingham. Land of Robin Hood, the oldest football league club in the world (Notts County FC), and apparently no toilet roll. A staff member at The Rescue Rooms, venue for the first UK show of the tour, is despatched to hunt the East Midlands city for some elusive bathroom essentials.
With over twenty years in the music business there isn’t much guitarist and co-founder Alan Morse and bassist Dave Morse haven’t seen. Something to wipe ones backside with however is very much conspicuous by its absence. Still it gives your scribe time to sit down with the aminable gents, the rest of the band are in various states of deep sleep, freshening up or out and about, to discuss all things Spock’s Beard.
In a nutshell if you are not familiar with the ‘Beard’ then simply put, if they were around in the 1970’s, instead of forming in the early 90’s, then they would no doubt have been partners in prog crime with the genres heavyweights like Pink Floyd, Genesis and Yes. As it is the classic progressive rock heyday has long since past. Multi million album sellers on triple vinyl are a thing of the past. That said Spock’s Beard have been successfully fighting the good fight for twenty years and twelve studio albums. Whilst their commercial success cannot be put into the same division as Floyd and Genesis their talent most certainly can.
Formed in 1991 by the brothers Morse, Neal & Alan, the band quickly displayed the ability to take the established progressive sounds and feel of the early 1970’s and bring it into a more modern world. After being the main man in terms of songwriting and leadership Neal left in 2002, although he does occasionally still do the odd stint with the band when the occasion calls.
However, this is 2015 and right now Spock’s Beard are on a crest of a musical wave as Dave points out when being asked about the European Tour that the band are currently half-way through to promote the outstanding new album The Oblivion Particle. “It’s going real good. We’ve been kind of hitting a groove these days. We’re pretty consistent you know. It’s good. There’s always technical problems but the past few gigs have been awesome”. It’s a view that is shared by Alan. “The shows in Eastern Europe were a little bit slow attendance-wise but they’ve really picked up in Germany and the UK as they are usually our biggest countries, along with the Netherlands”
Given that the band are here to showcase their latest album, their twelvth, it is interesting to note how many tracks they actually play from it. In a nutshell it roughly makes up half of the set. Not bad considering most bands these days usually do one track or maybe two and then stick with the “hits”. Dave and Alan are of the belief that playing new music live is pretty essential to what the band are about. “Well, we figure that’s why we’re here!!” they muse. Dave continues “Well, on our tenth album “X” we did the entire album but for this one we are doing about five out of the nine tracks like “Hell’s Not Enough”, “Tides of Time”, “Minion”, “To Be Free Again”.
Despite the “Oblivion” heavy setlist there has been on track that, much like this evening’s toilet roll debacle, has been noticeable by its absence, in the live set. Alan offers up this explanation “We could play them all, but interestingly we kind of made a mistake by not including “Bennett Built A Time Machine” because it turns out it’s a really popular track. We really didn’t think it would get as much traction as it did so we should have probably learned that one for the tour!!” (Fortunately a shortened acoustic version of the track, in which drummer Jimmy gets lead vocal duties, is aired this evening)
Dave has his own reasons for why the track was not originally considered for the stage “Part of the problem for me was the instrumentation of the song. I can’t really bring a mandolin and a banjo and all that stuff along with me. That’s really why I didn’t really want to do that one live. Otherwise you could probably fake it on the guitar but it’s not the same. Maybe someday I can take a mandolin on the road with me!! I used to bring a load of stuff on tour with me like a Cello and a musical saw. The luggage cart at the airport looked hilarious. It was stacked to the ceiling with piles of our luggage.”
Dave was now on a reminiscing roll and we were not one to stop him. “I remember a couple of tours back I ended going into Frankfurt airport with two luggage carts completely piled up, all by myself at 5 O’Clock in the morning, and the guy at the counter was like “You can’t bring all that on the aeroplane!!”. I’m like “OK, just tell me how much to get it all on”…….Man, that was an expensive flight!!”
Luggage dramas aside being 12 albums in you would think makes it difficult to choose a setlist. Not for this band and Alan reveals the simple reason why. “Dave makes good setlists!! He goes through all the old material and finds tracks we haven’t done for a while. Sometimes, however, we will just break into something weird just for fun.” A cover of the Stevie Wonder classic “Isn’t She Lovely” the following night proves the point.
There has been a surge in recent years of bands playing whole albums live at gigs. Usually this is to celebrate an anniversary of said album whether it’s the 10th, 20th or 23rd anniversary!! Most recently UK rockers The Wildhearts performed the whole of their P.H.U.Q album down the road at Rock City to celebrate 20 years since its initial release. Alan advises that this is something they have done before but was not really an option for The Oblivion Particle, as good as the album is.
“We never talked about it to be honest. We might be able to for some albums but that would take a lot of planning. It’s difficult with all the studio stuff it’s not easy to replicate that live. You would have to go into it (the studio) knowing that you could only use certain instruments. I can’t put auto-harp on it, you know!! There are some tracks that just don’t work as well live as others, unless you’re Pink Floyd!! They seem to be able to get away with it, other than that it’s very hard to do a whole set of slow tracks.”
Dave concludes “There’s a track on this album called “Disappear” which is a really nice track but it might be a little slow to play it live. There needs to be a balance.”
One thing your writer wanted to know was how did the band approach the recording of the new album, do they differ everytime they do one or are the in a familiar routine when it comes to recording. Alan knows the answer “Not really, although I did a lot of home recording this time compared to previously. I did almost all my guitar parts at my home studio, which was awesome. To be able to do all that stuff at home is really cool but I couldn’t have done that before I don’t think. I learned how to do it during those other albums with Rich (Mouser – producer) and now I know how to record guitars I can know how to get a way better tone and I work on it until it sounds right. I have to give props to Rich for showing me how to do it but now I know I can do it any house, which is very handy. So that was different , but it was more de-centralised and more spread out because everyone is in different places. It’s nice, and would be nice, I, and the other guys, would prefer if we could go some place killer for a month and just do a record all together, that said we might want to kill each other by the end!!
How about the amount of tracks the band work on at any one time when recording an album. Do they have dozens of tracks ready to be worked on? Or do they have the bare minimum required for the album and focus all attention onto those? This time Dave knows the answer to this one.
“We’d probably start with around about 11 or 12 tracks. Then we would decide which ones to actually focus on and then it’s a pretty concentrated effort on those tracks. We’d want to be finished by a certain day and spend x amount on the recording etc. Again there is no luxury of booking a studio out for six months to get it done”
Fans of the band will point out that musically speaking the band is as good as any of the progressive rock heavyweights like Genesis, Pink Floyd etc. In fact if the band had been around in the early 19790’s during the Prog Rock explosion they may well be a stadium-sized band all over the world. It’s not something that bothers Alan though.
“In terms of matching Floyd or Genesis, I hope I wouldn’t flatter myself that much!! It’s one of those things, who knows, we may not even have existed back then. Without those other influences we wouldn’t have all those records to listen to and the problem is I guess there would have been so many more bands doing the same thing you know.
It’s absolutely crazy now and there are so many new great musicians and players and it’s really grown. At the same time as the bands and musicians are expanding the industry is contracting. The quality of the players is getting ridiculous. I don’t even consider myself a player anymore. I check out Youtube and I think I’ll just take my stuff out in the yard and burn it. That’s what I felt when I saw Gentle Giant (British prog Rock band) in the 70’s.”
Given the wealth of bands these days and the amount of sub-genres with every genre having a progressive element for Blues to Black Metal. Is this something that the band are up to date with?
“I don’t really know how to answer that question because I don’t really listen to much modern music. Maybe bands like Porcupine Tree or King’s X and that weird kind of prog. A young band from Utah, USA called Event Horizon are doing some great things at the moment which kinda reminds me of that. They’re really good. Very strong songs.” Alan reveals.
Dave’s opinion differs slightly. “I don’t really listen to a whole lot of prog music” he offers.
So if listening to new and current bands doesn’t really provide much in the way of inspiration for the band where do they get their ideas and inspiration from?
“We all grew up in the 60’s and 70’s”, advises Alan. “Listening to millions of different things, or Beatles song’s in Dave’s case and it’s funny because playing and writing progressive rock comes from a different spot in your brain. It’s really fun to play and to write. Dave agrees “It’s really challenging and it gives you that YEAH feeling!!”
The band have recently announced a compilation, their first in their history, entitled “The First 20 Years” which is a 2cd/2dvd package that features almost every band member, past and present, in a 19 minute epic “Falling Forever”. The guys confirm that that anyone who is anyone is on that track, even jokingly revealing that your writer may be on it as well!! Given that most bands release a “Greatest Hits” after two albums waiting 20 years seems to be a bit of stretch!!
“It’s a very long and convoluted story” Dave confirms. “We floated the idea but It was actually pretty difficult in getting everyone interested in doing it. We had been talking about it for years but all of a sudden it became a “do it now” and that got everyone thinking about it at the same time. For many reasons it would be cool to have a new track on there and Neal (Morse) said that he had a couple of tracks and said “let me work it out” then he wrote a song. He was thinking of around a 7 or 8 minute song but it turned out a little bit longer!! We wanted the duelling drummers, all three singers, the whole dog and pony show!!
Alan is equally surprised at the length of time it has taken to do it. “To be honest I don’t know what took us so long. We been floating the idea since 2010’s “X” so it’s been a while and once the idea got off the ground it was like right we need it next Tuesday!!”
Whilst the compilation will be great news to fans of the band it has been news of a much bigger kind in Europe this summer that has had an impact on the band. Namely the migrant crisis. As I get ready to leave Dave explains more.
“We had a real interesting thing that happened last night. We came from Germany and big long drive and we were just about at Calais and stopped to get fuel. Most of us were asleep in the bunk and then some great commotion was happening and it turns out some refugees cut the lock to our trailer and opened the door and three of them climbed in and the fourth closed up and ran off. People were inside our equipment trailer and it was very weird. You can get detached from that sort of thing and then suddenly it’s happening right in front of you. We’ve seen it before in Mexico with a bunch of dudes running up with a ladder trying to climb up the wall right in front of us and the border patrol!!”
Towards the end of the interview Ryo Okumoto (keyboard) and Ted Leonard (vocals) joined in the conversation very briefly. Ryo, in what you may guess fairly typical Ryo fashion did not realise that the chat was an interview at all!! I shall take that as a compliment and escape from the band’s dressing room before he can retract it.
Oh, by the way, I have no idea if the band ever did get some toilet roll. It may forever remain a mystery.
Thanks to Freddy Palmer at Inside Out for arranging the interview and thanks to Spock’s Beard for being such genial hosts. Even Jimmy (Keegan – drummer) who spent the whole interview asleep on the sofa next to me!!
Click on the following link to read my review from that night’s gig http://www.maximumvolumemusic.com/review-spocks-beard-rescue-rooms-nottingham-uk-29092015/